The recent Oakland Marathon drew thousands of people to Lake Merritt. Overall, Oakland is losing residents. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland’s population shrank for the second year in a row in 2021, after a full decade of consistent growth.

Data released by the California Department of Finance this week revealed a 1.3% decline in the number of people living in Oakland—424,464 as of Jan. 1, down from 430,100 at the start of 2021.

While California’s overall population shrank as well, the statewide .3% drop was less steep than Oakland’s. But some of the factors causing people to leave the state are likely playing out in Oakland as well.

The Department of Finance attributes California’s population loss to deaths among aging Baby Boomers, and fewer young people having children, among other factors.

“The addition of COVID-19-related deaths, federal policies restricting immigration, and an increase in domestic out-migration further affected population totals,” the department said in a report. The time it now takes the government to process immigration applications also played a role in the net change: Last year, 43,300 immigrants came to California, compared to the typical yearly rate of 140,000 before the pandemic. 

Tim Thomas, research director with UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project, said Oakland’s small population drop was likely a product of migration out of the city more so than changes in birth or death rates, though those phenomena factored in as well.

“The urban core just hollowed out during the pandemic,” Thomas said.

Several different groups participated in that movement, he said. Some workers lost their jobs and were forced to move to less expensive areas. Some more affluent workers’ jobs went remote, enabling them to relocate, perhaps to somewhere with more space or closer to family. Young people also moved home or were displaced when schools closed. 

But without more granular data, it’s hard to know who’s most represented in Oakland’s 1.3% dip.

“What’s unknown is which neighborhoods saw the greatest loss,” Thomas said. “I’m curious to know, did it happen more in diverse, Latinx and Black, neighborhoods, or was it white flight from Oakland? Was it in more suburban-type areas, or more downtown?”

The 2020 census provided insight into these kinds of demographic changes during the period from 2010 to early 2020. But data collection for the census occurred early in the pandemic and didn’t measure most of what happened over the past two years, when the city’s population fell, leaving questions unanswered about the recent shift.

The Department of Finance report found that recent population trends were uneven across Alameda County. Overall there was a .6% drop in residents in the county last year, but the figures were different city to city. Berkeley and Albany experienced the largest increases in population: 2.7% and 5.4%, respectively. And several small cities had larger rates of decline than Oakland, including neighboring San Leandro and Piedmont.

Population growth has outpaced housing construction

In 2021, even as people left Oakland, hundreds of new housing units were built. But the rate of new construction has slowed during the pandemic, and in general, population growth has far outpaced housing production in recent years. 

The 2020 census revealed that Oakland gained around 50,000 residents from 2010 to 2020, but only built about 9,000 new housing units. The construction of affordable housing was particularly minimal, with Oakland only issuing permits for 22% of the affordable housing it’s required to plan for by 2023—contributing to the ability of some communities to be able to remain in Oakland and to the displacement of others.

At the start of the pandemic, Oakland and Alameda County passed sweeping eviction moratorium policies, making it illegal in almost all cases for landlords to force tenants to move out. Without those policies, the 1.3% drop could have been steeper, though Thomas said the difference the moratoriums made for the overall population change may not be very significant. 

“Oakland in general probably has some of the best housing protections in the country,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of eviction that goes on. There is definitely going to be a good number of households that’ll face eviction if the moratorium is lifted. But the biggest factor is still the general housing crisis.”

There were also smaller waves of people moving to Oakland over the past two years. Early in the pandemic, in summer 2020, several people spoke to The Oaklandside about choosing to move to Oakland from San Francisco, seeking cheaper rents after job loss, or more spacious houses during a period when people were required to stay at home. Real estate listing services said these anecdotes reflected a broader trend of San Francisco residents leaving for nearby suburbs and rural areas at the time. 

That movement prompted San Francisco rent prices to fall, which may in turn have inspired Oakland residents to snag apartments there.

Black population has already been decreasing for decades

For some communities, the story of a shrinking Oakland population goes back well before 2020. Even while Oakland was seeing an overall influx of residents in the 2010s, the Black population was declining rapidly, continuing a 40-year fall.
Black residents currently make up just 20% of Oakland’s population, down from 47% in 1980. Rising housing costs, loss of industry, and safety concerns all contributed to this shift.

“It’s not a good thing when people are pushed out of a city that are long-term protected classes and diverse folks,” Thomas said. “They tend to be the first pushed away, and when that happens, there’s no place for them to come back to.”

Census data shows that both the Hispanic and white populations grew significantly over the past decade.

As for the 1.3% population decrease, it is unclear whether that spells the end of a period of overall growth for Oakland, and whether the rest of the 2020s will see Oakland’s population diminish. These were two unusual years, and the factors affecting population size may be temporary.

Thomas said the change is something to take note of, however.

“For a growth to immediately decrease like that is huge,” he said. “Any time there’s a loss of net migration like that, something significant is happening.”

But Oakland might experience “whiplash,” he said, with people pouring back into the city as pandemic conditions shift.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.